Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Vegetable growing advice

 

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Laramie County Master Gardener Kathy Shreve prepares a trench for seeds in a raised bed set up with soaker hoses. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 4, 2017, “Time to get your garden growing.”

 

By Barb Gorges

I spent a recent evening in the garden with Kathy Shreve, Laramie County master gardener, reviewing what to know about local vegetable gardening. The topics mentioned here are covered in greater depth in the “gardening” section of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, http://botanic.org, which also has the link to the archive of my previous columns.

Timing

Wait until the end of May or later to transplant tender veggies like tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers or put them under a season-extending cover like a low tunnel. You can also plant them in containers you can scoot in and out of the garage.

However, Shreve started cabbage and onion plants indoors and planted them before the snow May 18-19 and they were fine. Some vegetables, like members of the cabbage family, don’t mind cold as much.

While peas, cabbage types, lettuces and other greens, can be planted earlier than the end of May, most vegetable seeds planted directly in the garden prefer warmer soil temperatures. Measure with a soil thermometer found at garden centers.

Shreve said we can plant as late as June 20. Plant fast growing crops as late as July if you want a fall harvest.

Location

Keep in mind the vegetable garden needs a minimum of six hours of sun per day, preferably morning sun.

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Shreve transplants cabbages she started indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Transplants

Because of our short growing season, tomatoes and other tender vegetables are started indoors. Always look for the short season varieties of these plants. Shreve said she looks for 80 or fewer “days to maturity.”

If the plant was not outside when you bought it, it will need hardening off. Start with the plant in the shade for two or three hours and day by day increase the amount of sun and the length of exposure by a couple hours. Keep it well watered.

When transplanting, Shreve advises digging a hole for your plant, filling it with water, then letting it drain before planting.

To remove a plant from a plastic pot, turn it upside down with the stem between your forefinger and middle finger. Squeeze the pot to loosen the soil and shake it very, very gently.

If there are a lot of roots, you can gently tease them apart a bit before putting the plant in the hole.

Hold the plant by the root mass so that it will sit in the hole with the soil at the same level of the stem as it was in the pot. Fill soil in around the roots, then tamp the soil gently.

However, tomatoes can be planted deeper since any part of their stem that is underground will sprout roots, the more the better. In fact, Shreve said to pinch off all but three or four leaves and bury the bare stem.

Lastly, keep plants well-watered, not soggy, while they get established. Wait a couple weeks before adding fertilizer to avoid burning the plants.

Mulch

Shreve mulches with certified weed-free straw available at local feed stores, but grass clippings and last year’s leaves can also be used.

Placing mulch 2 to 3 inches deep keeps the soil from drying so fast, shades out weeds and keeps rain and overhead watering from spattering dirt onto plants, which may spread disease. It can also keep hail from bouncing and inflicting damage twice.

 

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Seed

Root crops, like carrots and beets, don’t transplant well, so you are better off starting them from seed.

While fresh is good, Shreve said she’s had luck with seed seven years old. But the germination rate isn’t going to be great. She might spread carrot seed a little more thickly if that was the case, and it’s easy to thin to the proper spacing (and the thinnings can be tasty).

Because Cheyenne is dry, Shreve plants in a little trench. That way, when moisture comes, it will collect down where the plants are.

Seed packets tell you how deep to plant. The rule of thumb is three to four times deeper than the breadth of the seed. Lay the seed in the bottom of the trench and sprinkle that much dirt on them. Then water well, but gently, so you don’t wash out the seeds. Keep the soil surface moist until the seeds germinate.

Lightly mulch when the seedlings are visible, adding more as the plants get bigger.

Mark rows with popsicle sticks or plastic knives left from picnics.

Water

Once plants are established, let the top 1-2 inches of soil dry out between waterings. Test by sticking your finger in the soil. Water deeply.

Shreve waters every other day using soaker hose and drip irrigation systems, except when it rains. She originally tested her system for 30 minutes to see if water made it to the root depth and decided on 40 minutes.

Water in the morning, or at least make sure leaves are dry before dark.

Bugs and weeds

Mulch should eliminate most of the need to weed. Shreve said to keep up with it—it’s easier to pluck weed seedlings than to have them establish deep roots and go to seed.

For bugs, Shreve said it is easy to Google “what insect is eating my cabbage,” or take the critter, or evidence, to the Laramie County Extension horticulturist, Catherine Wissner. Her office is now out at Laramie County Community College, fourth floor of the new Pathfinder Building.

Never use pesticides until you identify your problem, and then try the least toxic method first. Again, more is not better. Never apply more than the directions indicate.

Slugs—my nemesis—indicate a garden is too wet.

Shreve said to roll newspaper to make 1 to 2-inch-diameter tunnels. Place rolls around affected plants in the evening. By sunrise, the slugs will be inside the rolls to get away from the light and you can dispose of them, rolls and all.

Fertilizer

Never add wood ash or lime to our alkaline soils as those work only on eastern, acidic soils.

Shreve likes slow-release products which are less likely to burn the plants, as are the natural fertilizers. Additionally, compost tea is a good soil conditioner.

Again, more is not better. Shreve uses half of what is directed until she sees how the plants respond.

Over-fertilization of fruit-producing vegetables like tomatoes often keeps them from producing the flowers that become the fruit. Shreve said they need to be stressed a little bit because it gets them thinking about preservation of the species and producing seed, rather than just enjoying life and producing leaves.

“Just leaves” is OK if you are growing leafy vegetables like lettuce, kale, spinach and chard.

Trellis and cage

If you are growing vining vegetables, getting them off the ground means fruits stay cleaner and don’t rot, and they are easier to find and pick. Use old chain link gates, bed springs, or anything else—be creative.

Hog panels make sturdy tomato cages 5 feet high and 2.5 feet in diameter for larger, indeterminate varieties, with chicken wire over the top for hail protection. Otherwise, use jute twine to loosely tie the stem to a bamboo stake.

Add flowers

Adding annual flowers like alyssum, marigolds and sunflowers, or herbs including dill and oregano, attracts pollinators and beneficial insects to your garden.


Cutting Gardens: Grow Your Own Bouquet

Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan)

Published Nov. 18, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Grow your own bouquets: whether you prefer a formal cutting garden or the more informal cottage garden approach, a little planning—and some tracking with a spreadsheet—will have your garden yielding seasons of colors indoors and outside.”

Bloom Chart

Click this link for the chart in Excel: Gorges Greening & Blooming 2012 (2)

Click this link for the chart as a PDF: GorgesGreening&Blooming2012(3)

When I first started this list in March, I was excited about spring and listed everything as it greened up. Later I wasn’t as rigorous so green-up times for some of the later blooming perennials are estimates. If no green is mentioned, it could be a plant was already blooming when I planted it, or I noticed it in the neighborhood and thought I might try it someday.

Gaillardia

Gaillardia

Not everything on the list might lend itself to cutting for traditional floral arrangements, but overall, you get a sense of seasonal progression of garden color.

Note:  Greening up but not blooming in my garden this year because they are biennials, newly planted–or stubborn–were mullein, Verbascum Thapsus; hollyhock, Alcea spp.; poppy, Papaver spp.; gayfeather, Liatris punctata; and peony, Paeonia spp.

You’ll notice that after I list the common name of a plant it is followed by the Latin genus name, but sometimes I’ve put “spp.” after that instead of the species name because I never recorded it or it wasn’t available. On the other hand, on my list some variety names appear after the plant’s common name.

By Barb Gorges

asters

Fall blooming asters

Why grow flowers

There’s more to harvest from the garden than the edibles. There are the flowers.

The practical vegetable gardener may already have companion flowering plants, such as marigolds, that either ward off insect pests or shanghai them, but let’s talk about flowers–flowers that make you want to pick them and bring them in the house, and even share them with friends.

If you have the urge to cut flowers, then you want to consider the cutting garden.

The vegetable gardener may scoff at flowers, but the enormous flower industry is meeting an important need, even if it is merely human happiness.

Flowers in the garden make the bees happy, too, and they in turn may add to vegetable prosperity. Plus, growing your own is cheaper than the florist imports, sometimes from South America.

“Cutting garden” is a searchable Internet term and immediately I found an article from the University of Vermont advising me to plant my flowers in mono-species patches, like vegetables, in some out-of-the-way place where you won’t have to look at the destruction you wreak when you cut all that’s in bloom.

The Cheyenne Botanic Gardens has a plot in its community gardens where cutting flowers grow, said its assistant director Claus Johnson. It features long-stemmed, showy varieties like dahlia, gladiolus and zinnia, and Bells of Ireland, which has a green flower, for contrast.

Not having a place or desire to do that, I went to the Laramie County Public Library and found Suzanne McIntire’s book, “An American Cutting Garden, A Primer for Growing Cut Flowers.”

Strawflower

Strawflower

Cottage Gardens

While perusing the 20 feet of gardening books five shelves high, I discovered books on the cottage garden and realized, in a tiny way, that’s how I already grow my flowers. A true cottage garden would leave no turf inside the fence except paths since the historical British cottager was growing food and herbs as well. But I’m still giving the dogs lawn space in back and blending the front turf with all the neighbors’.

No symmetrical borders or large swathes of color for me, simply a profusion of whatever will grow–cottage-style. I bring a few blooms indoors for closer examination and appreciation of beauty than is afforded by the view out the window or the passing glance during garden chores. Having a garden  that is considered messy means that cutting a few flowers is not noticeable.

November is a little late to be telling you fall is the time to prepare new flower beds and plant spring bulbs, the first of the cutting flowers. If the ground is actually frozen, then stockpile leaves and compost to dig into your future bed, rustle up your seed-starting equipment and sit back and enjoy the plant catalogs while anticipating what the local garden centers will carry in spring.

In your plans and dreams, don’t forget to take into account growing greenery for your future flower arrangements. And plan to leave paths so you can reach everything with pruners or scissors.

Much of my cottage/cutting garden is on automatic pilot: perennial plants and self-seeding annuals. Every year I fill in spaces with new perennials or annuals. Sometimes the spaces happen because perennials get tired and disappear, or I pull out some of the overly vigorous, such as feverfew or lemon balm, a mint. My flower garden is populated by hardy specimens I like.

McIntire advises us to correlate the cutting garden to future flower arrangements, but my bouquets are as informal as my garden. Any blooms that are incompatible, such as the violets that are too short for an arrangement with penstemons, get their own appropriately sized vase/jar. As a long-time quilter, I never worry anymore if my quilts or flowers match my décor—the more color I have, the less it matters.

Cosmos

Cosmos

Keeping records 

Last summer, I decided to keep records on an Excel spreadsheet showing my garden bloom dates in color. My dates won’t be the same as yours due to differences in plant exposure to sun, wind, soil and moisture, as well as particular horticultural variety.

Although many bloomed two weeks early this year, the list of plants is more useful to Cheyenne gardeners than McIntire’s. She gardens in Virginia in cold hardiness Zone 7 and has a long, hot growing season. We reside in Zone 5 with a short season, though squint-eyed optimist that I am, I usually aim for perennial plant varieties with the colder Zone 4 rating.

Finding dianthus, pansy, violet and calendula blooming in November is a little like discovering Easter eggs, but there they were Nov. 9, despite 9 inches of snow the month before. I’m reluctant to tuck the blanket of leaf mulch over them just yet.

Even in winter, there will be a few things to cut. The yarrow and rudbeckia left standing would make a nice dry flower arrangement, maybe with the strawflowers I dried earlier.

In December, I look forward to coniferous evergreen prunings, or a whole spruce or fir tree as is customary, the ultimate in cutting plants to bring indoors.


August Garden: Pruning, Harvesting, Record-keeping, Hail Protection

Gold Nugget tomatoes

Gold Nugget cherry tomatoes are an early, determinate variety.

Published Aug. 29, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Busy Bee: August is a busy time of the month when it comes to your garden care.”

By Barb Gorges

In July, I could scarcely believe how much growth my vegetable plants put on. Hot weather is particularly good for tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, my main crops.

And this month brings a full crop of gardening issues: pruning, proper harvesting, note-taking, winter harvest planning and hail protection.

Pruning

It was easy to see that allowing one square foot for each of my yellow cherry tomato plants–as per the seed package directions–was inadequate. By the end of July, I couldn’t even see the support baskets. Plus, since we’d been out of town, I missed my chance to pinch suckers when they are tiny, something the garden books all mention.

But when I checked with local expert Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, he said it wasn’t necessary in this climate—our plants need all the leaves they can get to nourish them in our short growing season. The only pinching that is helpful: tomato blossoms that won’t produce ripened fruit before frost. Cheyenne’s first average frost date is Sept. 20, meaning often it is earlier.

Shane said he also might snip a few leaves from around a tomato to give it more sun and encourage it to ripen more quickly.

Harvesting

When my husband Mark grew prodigious amounts of tomatoes years ago in Miles City, Mont., I was the one who harvested them because his job in fish management kept him out in the field. I just pulled them from the vines.

But now, after talking to Shane and reading the book “Grow, Cook, Eat,” by former Cheyennite Willi Galloway, I’ve learned that snipping or cutting vegetables is best. Or, in the case of beans and peas, at least use two hands, one to hold the plant and one to pinch. A sharp knife is good for harvesting broccoli and the leafy things. As a general rule, it seems it is better to harvest at the young and tender stage. This means checking your garden often enough. Plus, in some cases, harvesting encourages more edible growth.

Next year I plan to be less tomato-centric and learn how to cultivate and harvest carrots, cabbage and maybe cantaloupe.

Note-taking

In addition to starting a wish list of vegetables for next summer, now is the time to make notes on successes and failures.

I also need to remember where I’ve planted tomatoes and their cousins, eggplant and peppers, so I don’t plant them in the same place at least the next two summers—a 3-year break insures no species-specific viruses will lurk in the ground.

Now is the time to figure out why the pansy leaves turned bright yellow with green veins. It’s chlorosis, same as many trees in Cheyenne get. If the yellow isn’t from insufficient watering, it may mean that particular plant has not been able to take up enough iron and needs a treatment of iron chelate. Different kinds of plants and even different varieties of the same kind have different capabilities for wresting iron from our alkaline soils, Shane told me.

Now is the time to find a sunnier spot in the yard for the poppies and peony that didn’t bloom, to prepare for moving them after the first frost.

Spring was the time to make notes on how the tulips and other spring bulbs fared and mark where they are so I don’t accidently damage them while planting more this fall. Late summer is the time to order bulbs and corms and tubers of interesting perennials to plant in that in-between time after the first frost and before the hard ground freeze.

I’m keeping my eyes open for more information about the Laramie County Master Gardeners’ bulb sale beginning September 9 at its annual Garden Walk.

Winter harvest planning

Garden authors Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch harvest vegetables year-round at Four Season Farm in Maine. They harvest greens throughout the winter from cold frames or inside high tunnels with floating row covers over the plants—double insulation.

Some greens they start in August for fall harvest. Others mature by winter and remain static, but alive, for mid-winter harvest. As space becomes available, Eliot gets an early start on spring greens.

The trick is to find a spot that is shady in the heat of summer so the seedlings get started, but that will be sunny by the time leaves fall, Barbara said in a recent edition of her garden column in the Washington Post.

I asked Shane if folks around here have tried this. He said many greens may not survive mid-winter here, but spinach sown in mid-August will green up in April.

We had a cold frame years ago: an old storm window supported over the soil by a frame of boards allowing the window to slope towards the south, with hinges at the back so it could be propped open on warm days.

Mark used it to put seedlings out early. Extending the season in the other direction would be an interesting experiment. But we may have to invest in one of those heat-activated hinges to open the top on hot Indian-summer fall days we are out fishing or we could cook our greens before they are picked.

Coleman’s book, “Four-Season Harvest” is a good guide, especially for interesting greens like mache (put the tent over the “a” for the French accent). It also has a handy time-table for planting in our zone.

Hail protection

Aren’t we proud to be hail capitol of the U.S.? So what does one do to keep her garden from being flattened?

Grant Family Farms, based in Wellington, Colo., plants in fields scattered over a large area, since hail storms tend to be very localized.

Home gardeners are of three camps when it comes to hail.

The first is to build a roof or cage of hardware cloth–wire mesh–over each raised vegetable bed, or make little caps over each plant.

The second is to run out and throw something over the plants when hail threatens. Jan Nelson-Schroll said she puts cushions on top of her tomato baskets. She said this isn’t a solution if you aren’t home or the hail is too big for your safety. Smith suggested installing poles beforehand that are taller than the plants for draping a tarp or sheet over so that the plants aren’t flattened by the weight.

The third is to do nothing. Master Gardener Kathy Shreve said her garden is too big to cover.

For more tips on protecting your garden and recovering from hail damage, visit the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, www.botanic.org, and click on Garden Tips. You may also pick up a copy at the greenhouse.

Annual flowers

Why is it that the sunflowers the birds planted are more successful than the sunflower seeds I bought and babied?

How many annual flowers, like the cosmos I started from seed, can I cut and bring inside to enjoy versus the number to enjoy outside? And of the flowers left outside, how many should I deadhead to keep more blooms coming versus the number of old blooms to leave to go to seed so I can establish a self-seeding stand?

Garden report

By Aug. 16 the heliotrope was finally in full, deep purple bloom. The seed catalog picture did not do it justice. It is worth the wait. We picked our first Japanese-type eggplant July 25. It was only 8 inches long, but now that we have more patience, we’ve let them grow bigger. The “Gold Nugget” yellow cherry tomatoes started ripening the first week in August and the gold rush is picking up as we prospect under the leaves to find them. The red cherry tomatoes are just now ripening. The pumpkin vine has put on yards of growth in the last month, and nearly a dozen pumpkins. The winter squash is a dozen feet long, but no squash. It’s kind of late to try hand pollination and get something to ripen.

So far so good. Can you hear me knocking on the wooden tomato trellis?